Recruiting the brain’s underdogs

Natalina Salmaso,
Carleton University

About half of the human brain is made up of cells, known as astrocytes, which researchers used to think were like the scaffolding that holds the more important neurons together.

But Natalina Salmaso knows better. She calls astrocytes the underdogs of the brain: a dynamic class of cells that are just as busy as neurons, but whose work historically went unrecognized. Her research involves revealing how these cells help our brains stay at their best.

Salmaso, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Behavioural Neurobiology at Carleton University, has spent much of her career studying astrocytes, although not in the context of Parkinson’s disease. She was intrigued when she learned that a lot of the research on this disorder had dealt with astrocytes.

“Astrocytes go to the neurons when they are dying,” she says. “When this happens in Parkinson’s disease, the astrocytes are gathering around them, they’re changing their shape, and they’re emitting different biochemical factors. People have noted these changes are occurring, but no one has really investigated what it means.”

Now, having received a one-year Pedaling for Parkinson’s Pilot Project Grant through the Parkinson Canada Research Program, Salmaso is going to stimulate astrocytes to learn how they confront the impact that Parkinson’s has on neurons. To do that, she’ll use a virus that has been genetically modified to be sensitive to light, which will interact with astrocytes in a controlled fashion.

“The idea is to understand what the stimulation does,” she says. “We believe the astrocytes are trying to heal the neurons, but failing for some reason. At a molecular level, we want to target what they need to do to heal those neurons earlier in the game.”

Salmaso believes that targeting astrocytes is akin to using probiotics, which enhance the body’s innate capacity to stay healthy. In the case of Parkinson’s, astrocytes may be trying to do the same. But Salmaso thinks they’re overwhelmed by the amount of inflammation and cell death that has already occurred in the brain. If she can prove that theory, it will set researchers on a path to discovering other mechanisms to help the astrocytes succeed at their job.

“The more we understand about how these cells do their job to keep neurons healthy, the more we can mimic that in any model of disease.”

Read about other researchers recently funded by the Parkinson Canada Research Program by visiting the research section of www.parkinson.ca.

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